I have attended hundreds of IEP meetings in my work as a special education advocate. Often, either parents or I will make a request, be it for an evaluation, an accommodation, or for an added or increased service. And then one of the team members will enthusiastically explain that what we ask for is really quite unnecessary, and justify this position with an excuse.
I think about excuses as obstacles on an obstacle course. If you get past the excuse, you can go on with discussing what your child needs. If not, that’s where you stop, at least in that meeting. Unfortunately, I find myself on those obstacle courses more often than I would like.
School after school, district after district, year in and year out, with inevitable predictability, I hear the same excuses. As a result, I have developed comebacks for all common excuses, so that I have a response ready to go without having to think about it every time.
And while I wholeheartedly hope that all your team are meetings are collaborative and productive, in case you are ever offered an excuse, here is your Little Book of Excuse Busters and Other Magic Spells.
In response to your concern about your child’s behavior or ability, a team member says: “It’s absolutely normal for children his/her age.” Many of his/her classmates are doing the same thing/are struggling in the same way."
Your Response: “Yes, I agree that typical children might have the same difficulties at this age. However, typical children will develop, mature and naturally grow out of “whatever it is” (or learn “whatever the skill”). My child has a disability in this area and will require intervention/explicit instruction/supports to get there, and that is what I would like to discuss”.
Comment: I hear this excuse very often. You do not have to respond in the same wording, but this is the gist of what you want to say and continue with the discussion. I have used this many times and it always works.
When you ask the team for a service, support or accommodation for your child, a team member says, “We have many other students in the district with this profile/disability who aren’t getting this support/service and are doing just fine.”
Your Response: I do not know anything about the situation of these other students, so I cannot discuss them. In this meeting, we can only focus on my child and his/her needs. Can we please keep our focus on my child.
Comment: Teams often use this excuse, and this is your answer. You do not know anything about these other children, their diagnoses, the interventions they are getting and their progress. You are in the meeting to be your child's voice. Do not get side-tracked and dragged into these discussions.
Excuse # 3:
When you bring up your concern that your child is not making progress, or that you would like an additional support/service on your child’s IEP, a team member says,
“The team feels that [student] is making progress”
“The team feels that X support/service is not necessary right now”
Your Response: “Special education law requires that team decisions are made based on data, not feelings. Each one of us has feelings about what we are discussing, and our feelings on this are different. Can you please share with me the data you have that you used to come to this conclusion?”
Comment: This is also very common, and more often than not there is no data, so the next step is to ask for it to be collected. If you have your own data (private evaluations, notes, clips, work samples, etc.) you can share them. With this, the conversation shifts to specific and measurable information. Both you and the team might learn nuances of whatever your stated concern was focused on. If your team cannot provide data and refuses to collect it, you should request a very detailed Prior Written Notice in order to create a paper trail.
Excuse # 4:
When you are asking for a therapy, type of instruction, or accommodation for your child, the answer is: “The student would not enjoy/would refuse this service”
Your response: “Special education law requires that the child has the specialized instruction and services that they require in order to access the academic and social curriculum and make effective progress. We need to make decisions/develop IEP based on what is required, and not based on child's preferences. It will then be a separate task for us as a team to come up with a good way to offer this service to him/her."
Comment: This is also something I hear often and a response that works well. You want to be mindful of your child’s preferences, but the IEP cannot be based on them. In many cases, especially with autism and its accompanying rigidities, child might have trouble accepting a service that is highly beneficial. It is not an excuse not to offer the child that service. It is a call to meet the challenge of helping the child recognize the need for it, and to make use of it.
Excuse # 5:
This one comes up when you bring up a concern about your child’s skill level and how it plays out at school. For example, it might come up if you are concerned about your child always spending recess alone, while other children are playing in groups. You might hear this response: “Student chooses to behave this way, it’s his/her personality not to want to do X (often used for social challenges).
Your Response: “You cannot make a choice if you do not have the skill. If my child does not have skills to, for example, play with other children, then he is not making a choice. He does not have a choice. If you teach him skills and he still will not socialize, then he will be making a choice.”
Comment: It is very common for IEP teams to see child's disability-related challenges as a choice or as willful behaviors. This explains that there is a difference between not having a skill and making a poor choice. It can also be helpful to show the team very specifically the connection between the child’s disability/profile and the challenge you are discussing. For example, “My child refuses to write paragraphs and acts out because he does not have the executive functioning skills to approach a writing task. He does not know how to get started, how to come up with an idea, how to plan out the steps and how to organize his writing. He also does not have the skills to ask for help, so he acts out instead.” This connects disability to classroom performance and behavior. In many cases this can help team members understand child’s challenges through the lens of his/her disability.
When you request a therapy for your child, the response is: “Parents are already providing this intervention/service at home, so the school does not have to provide it.”
Your response, “We can choose to provide therapies privately, but it is still the school’s responsibility to provide services that address student’s challenges in accessing social and academic curricula at school. Private services do not decrease school’s responsibility.”
Comment: This works every time. There is nothing in the law that says that if parents choose to help their child, the school has to do less. As a parent, for various reasons, you might choose to address certain issues through private therapies and not push for them to be addressed in school. But do not let the school make that decision for you.
W hear this when team discussion is around child not making progress in some area, or in general, and someone says, “Parents are not doing X at home (or are doing Y at home), which is why the student isn’t making progress.” Of course, you are feeling hurt, and defensive, and maybe this makes you want to cry or even lash out. But don't. Just turn the tables on your team.
Your Response: “It is true that it is very important for all of us to work together, and we would love to be able to better support our child's progress at home. As a team, what can you do to communicate to us the strategies you are teaching our child, the specific language you use with him/her, and any materials you use? How can you help us be informed about how we can help our child?”
Comment: This usually leads to setting up a solid home-school communication plan. It can have many parts, depending on the situation. You could touch base with certain team members every week via email, you could have a weekly phone call, or you could set up meetings every 6-8 weeks to see work samples and learn about skills and strategies your child is learning and how to support them. You could have the materials used at school for learning skills sent home if appropriate. For example, visuals for How Does my Engine Run or Size of the Problem can be shared and used on both settings. There are a lot of examples like that. Visual organizers, checklists, number lines, rubrics and any other visual supports can be sent home as well and a team member can explain to you how to use them with your child. Home-school communication plan can be entered into an IEP as an accommodation. It can also be described in the Additional Information section, or included on Service Delivery Grid A of the IEP.
Excuse # 8:
When you bring up a concern (for example, anxiety, depression, lack of follow through, difficulties completing homework, or behavioral problems), your team's response is, "We don’t see this issue at school, so it is a home issue. We can't provide support for something we do not see."
Your response: There isn’t a simple and quick response to this one. This can be a bit tricky. There are two considerations to it.
Some challenges, such as anxiety and depression, can be very difficult to see at school. But if the child has anxiety, he or she does not leave it at home, it definitely comes to school with the child. For that, you can ask for data collection by a trained person, such as psychologist or a guidance counselor. You can also talk to the team about when these challenges tend to come up and any subtle warning signs that they can look for while collecting data. Team members can be informed and trained to recognize these clues, and a plan can be put in place on how to address them. At the same time, your child can be taught how to self-monitor and know when he or she needs help, and how to ask for it.
The second consideration is called generalization, which is taking the skills that the child learned in one setting, such as school, and being able to use them in another setting, such as home or community. This also refers to using skills with different people, in different situations, every time when needed. School is responsible for generalization of skills. If it is not happening, you can request for generalization objectives to be included in the IEP. This means that objectives would specify that your child has to show the skill in more than one situation and with more than one person. That helps with generalization. As in the previous example, you can also request that team members communicate with you on how you can support generalization of skills to you home.
When you are requesting a service or support for your child and the answer is along the following lines:
"Based on our district standards, you child does not qualify for X service /support"
“In our district, we do not do IEPs for children with health disabilities”
“In our district, we provide social skills training only for students with autism”
“In our district, we only provide ESY (summer services) for students with very severe disabilities”
In our district, we do not take sensory issues into consideration”
Your Response: “There are standards and mandates that are defined by federal and state special education laws, and the district has to comply with these standards. The district cannot create its own set of standards that are not consistent with what the law says.”
Comment: The problem here is that the district is saying that they have their own set of rules for making special education decisions. That is not legal. What you might want to do in this situation, is to ask the team to review the law together to see what exactly it says. School's decisions can only be based on that. You can also ask for a copy of the district policy that is being quoted to you, in writing. Most likely it does not exist, and if it does, it will be evidence that the district is not following the law. You should know the legal situation around the request you are making.
I hope that next time in a meeting, when an excuse is thrown in your path, you will know what to do. May you run strong and get to the finish. And may the Force be with you.